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Beverley Milton-Edwards
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Islam in Palestine occupies a special place in the Muslim imagination and faith. Palestine, and more specifically Jerusalem, is the locus of the third most holy site in Islam. Jerusalem was the original direction for Muslim prayer (qibla). Both the Qurʿān and ḥadīth make reference to Jerusalem. It is from Jerusalem that the Prophet Muḥammad ascended to heaven during his Night Journey (isrāʿ   and miʿrāj). In the Qurʿān it is related that the Prophet went on a journey by night from Mecca to Jerusalem; he reached the Ḥaram al-Sharīf where the al-Aqṣā Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are situated. Thus this location is revered by Muslims around the world and considered an important site for pilgrimage. This same site enjoys sanctity according to Jewish tradition as the location of the Second Temple.

Palestine fell under Muslim rule in 638 CE when the forces of the Caliph ʿUmar conquered the country and its principal city, Jerusalem. According to Muslim tradition, the Caliph ʿUmar entered Jerusalem on foot and without pomp and circumstance. The caliph is said to have received the keys to the city from Patriarch Sophronius, and then led the Muslim prayers at the site of the Prophet's Night Journey, in what became known as the Ḥaram al-Sharīf. It is also believed that the caliph and Christian leaders of the region reached a series of agreements known as the Umayyad Treaties. Caliph ʿAbd al-Malīk (646–705 CE) commenced the building of the Dome of the Rock in 688 CE to commemorate the Prophet's Night Journey, and his son, the Caliph Walīd (705–715 CE), built the Mosque of al-Aqṣā.

Thus, under successive Umayyad, ʿAbbāsid, Ayyūbid, Mamlūk, and Ottoman periods of rule the Islamic character of this territory was established through rules of governance, the building of Muslim institutions, and the spiritual attachment Muslims felt toward it. Over the centuries, Islamic institutions established in Palestine included mosques, schools, hospitals, seminaries, and endowment (waq  f    ) properties. In time the site of the Ḥaram al-Sharīf, along with many other locations throughout Palestine, were augmented by the construction of buildings and other architecture including shrines, tombs, inns, fountains, palaces, homes, and courts.


Muslim rule in Palestine gave rise to a system of charitable endowments and trusts known as waqf (pl. awqāf). The third caliph, ʿUthmān, acquired the spring of Silwan in Jerusalem and established it as the first waq  f in Palestine, in perpetuity for the people of the city. A waq  f cannot be revoked; thus they were used as a means of maintaining Muslim governance throughout Palestine as well as a form of charity. The establishment of awqāf in Palestine continued throughout Muslim rule of the country with particularly fine examples of endowments founded during the Ayyūbīd, Mamlūk, and Ottoman eras. During the Ayyūbīd period, following Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn's defeat of the Crusaders, waq  f endowments and institutions were a means of reestablishing the Muslim character of the country. They were proof of the Muslim attachment to Palestine as an Islamic center. These endowments also institutionalized Islam in Palestine; administrative structures grew around them and their administrators formed the core of Palestine's notable class and elite.

The Khasseki waq  f, for example, symbolized the fusion between Muslim obligation according to the fundamental tenets of the faith and governance through the establishment of a significant charitable foundation (takīyah). Founded by Roxelana, the wife of Ottoman Sultan Sulaymān the Magnificent, the waq  f consisted of a mosque, a seminary, a soup kitchen, a hostel, and a hospice. The resources for these charities were derived from the income generated from lands and farms owned in Palestine by the founder of the waq  f.

In Palestine, then, the importance of the waq  f was connected to territoriality in terms of the lands and properties endowed, and the social and political control derived from them. During the Ottoman era state reform and centralization meant that the authorities could use the endowments as a means of expanding their power and influence over local elites. Under both the British mandate and Israeli occupation authorities sought again to exploit waq  f institutions and administration as a method of bringing their power to bear on a subject Palestinian Muslim population. Such methods have met with varying success.

Modern day Palestinian Islamists, moreover, have represented the issue of waq  f in terms of the discourse on territoriality and conflict settlement with Israel. Conceptually, for example, the Ḥamās movement considers the whole of Palestine subject to waq  f. They have stated in article 11 of their Charter that because the territory is being held in perpetuity for all Muslims, no party can renounce the Muslim claim to it. In terms of conflict resolution with Israel this rules out land-for-peace approaches. In the past, however, Ḥamās and its predecessors have also eschewed the formal institutions of the waq  f administration. They have constructed their own mosques, paid for their own preachers, and run their own charitable activities as if they are a form of endowment to the Palestinian people of the occupied territories.

Foreign Intervention.

The Islamic character of Palestine was disrupted as a result of foreign intervention in the country beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. This intervention was primarily Western and Christian in character and was manifest as the “rediscovery” of Palestine. The rediscovered Palestine was represented to an external Western audience in a variety of media—arts, literature, and theater, as well as religious and increasingly political treatises that were avidly consumed across Europe and North America. The picture of Palestine that was presented, however, was either devoid of a Muslim dimension or the majority Muslim population was portrayed in a negative light, as if Muslims were peripheral to the character of Palestine. This Orientalist approach was much approved of in political circles. It provided cultural legitimacy to the ambition of subjecting Palestine to Western control, and thus vanquishing Muslim governance and custodianship of the Holy Land. Muslim beliefs and practices were largely disdained and the Ottoman rulers of Palestine were dismissed.

During World War I, the British occupied Palestine (in 1917) and thus brought to a close the continuity of Muslim rule that had lasted over the region since the rout of the Crusaders by Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn in 1187 CE After the war the newly-formed League of Nations awarded the British authority over the country. The terms of the British mandate affirmed the commitments of the Balfour Declaration made in 1917, in which the Jews were promised British assistance in the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine.

The majority Muslim population organized various forms of protest against both British authority and the Zionist settlers who were intent on establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. Muslim national resistance strategies revolved around motifs of anti-colonialism, nationalism, and Islamic nationalism. Notable Muslim families associated with major Islamic institutions such as the awqāf and Islamic courts were split over how to respond to British tutelage and the Zionist influx. Some initially allied themselves to the Mandate authorities and others resisted it by forming national political movements. Such movements and factions became embroiled in the Palestinian general strike and national revolt of 1936–1939.

The British attempted to bring Muslim institutions under their control through the establishment of the Supreme Muslim Council (SMC), which had responsibility for awqāf and the Muslim courts as well as the post of Muftī of Jerusalem. This attempt was unsuccessful, however, in creating a doggedly pro-British body working against the grain of popular Palestinian opinion of the day. The Muftī opposed the British during the Palestinian revolt and the SMC proved less than amenable as a tool of divide and rule for the Mandate power. The SMC was dissolved in 1948 when the British terminated their mandate in Palestine.

Maintaining the Imprint of Islam.

Following the partition of Palestine in 1947 and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the Muslim population of the region became citizens of the new state or subject to the political leadership of Jordan and Egypt. Israel's Declaration of Independence demands that all Israel's citizens, including Muslims, be treated equally in the eyes of the law. From 1949 to 1966 the Arab Muslim population of Israel was, however, subject to martial law. Muslim resources derived from the waq  f system and lands were also exploited and appropriated by the Israeli state and the Jewish National Fund.

In the Jordanian-annexed territories of the West Bank and the Egyptian-administered Gaza Strip, the majority Muslim Palestinian population witnessed a divergent approach with respect to Muslim institutions and Muslim political activism. Under Jordanian rule, the Ministry of Awqāf became an important institution for legitimating the extension of Hashemite claims to the custodianship of the Ḥaram al-Sharīf. King Hussein's regime regarded Palestinian Muslim activists, however, with suspicion. In 1954 a law on “preaching and guiding” effectively banned the use of mosques for the propagation of Islamist ideas. Under the Egyptian authorities, members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip were subject to cycles of repression and activists were imprisoned.

In 1967, when Israel conquered the territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, the Muslim majority population of Palestine found itself occupied, subject to the legal jurisdiction of the state of Israel. East Jerusalem, including Islam's holy sites in the Old City, was also subject to Israeli authority. The Maghribī quarter of the Old City, for example, which abutted the Jewish shrine of the Western Wall, was subject to demolition to allow for the creation of a plaza. Access to the Ḥaram al-Sharīf through the Maghribī gate fell into Israeli hands. The rest of the Ḥaram al-Sharīf complex, including the remaining gates, have been managed and administered by the Ministry of Awqāf authorities first through Jordanian and then Palestinian governance. Under Israeli control the imprint of Islam in Palestine, through its formal institutions, was progressively diminished.

Revivalism and Rebellion.

Muslim Palestinians, however, established a revivalist tradition of Islamic thought that gave birth to Ḥizb al-Taḥrīr al-Islāmī (the Islamic Liberation Party) in Jerusalem in 1952. Its founder, Taqī al-Dīn al-Nabhānī, called for the reestablishment of a Muslim caliphate not just in Palestine but across the Muslim world, where such leadership and governance had fallen into abeyance as a result of Western or Western-inspired rule.

Palestinian Islamic thinkers and ideologues who succumbed to the influences and example of figures like Ḥasan al-Bannā and Sayyid Quṭb, or movements like the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwān al-Muslimīn) and the Mujāhidīn movement in Afghanistan, arose in the generation of new Islamic groups and movements such as the Groups (Mujama), Islamic Jihād (al-Jihād al-Islāmī), the Islamic Movement in Israel, and the Islamic Resistance Movement, ḥamās. The organization of new groups and movements indigenous to Palestinian Muslims grew out of the wider regional manifestation of Islamic resurgence. This resurgence had spiritual, political, economic, cultural, and social dimensions. In the Palestinian territories Israel encouraged some elements as a means of generating an anti-secularist front in opposition to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In the late 1970s and early 1980s this expression of resurgent Mus-lim identity among Palestinian Muslims led to clashes and conflict with Palestinian secularists and institutions associated with the leftist factions of the PLO.

During the first Palestinian intifāḍah (1987–1993) Muslim resistance in the form of the increasingly-popular ḥamās was representative of the progressive Islamization of Palestinian society, as well as the Islamic politicization of the national agenda with respect to the Israeli occupation and the demand for self-determination and independence. The PLO came to consider ḥamās a serious rival for its claim to be the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” The campaign for Islamization led by organizations such as ḥamās and Islamic Jihād had its impact on a number of dimensions of social, economic, and cultural life among the Muslim majority population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This was manifest in changing education curricula, dress codes, and social mores such as gender segregation, as well as welfare provision and burgeoning zakāt committees. Such activities also benefited from the support of the wider Muslim community outside of the Palestinian territories. The Muslim struggle in Palestine thus entered the discourse of contemporary Islam around the world and has animated the work of many Muslim thinkers. Fatāwā (religious-legal opinions), for example, issued by important Muslim theologians on the permissibility of jihād, or more specifically, what are commonly termed suicide missions against Israeli targets, have preoccupied Muslim discourse and created controversy and tension at the wider level of discourse on Islam and the West.

The Road to Muslim Statehood in Palestine.

During the Oslo era of limited Palestinian autonomy, the Muslim institutions of Palestine were subject to a power struggle between the nascent Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and the Hashemite authorities in Jordan. The PNA, under the leadership of Fatah leader Yasir Arafat, won out and the Muslim identity of the political institutions of the PNA was established. The Basic Law of the PNA underwrites the Muslim identity of this proto-state institution by providing for sharīʿah courts to address the realm of personal status issues. Article 4 of the Basic Law also declares that Islam is the official religion of Palestine and due respect should be accorded to other religions. The laws of Islam are also the basis for Palestinian law under the PNA. (This article is problematic for secular Palestinians who argue that faith should be restricted to the private realm and not play a part in determining the nature of statehood and governance in the polity.)

Palestinian Islamists, however, rejected the Oslo Accords, the establishment of the PNA, and the principle of negotiations with Israel on the basis of land-for-peace. They adhered to the principle that all Palestine is considered non-negotiable sanctified Muslim territory. PLO negotiators have been branded as traitors to Islam for their willingness to negotiate with Israel over territory in return for an independent state. While Islamists were part of the political opposition and marginalized, the Islamization project continued unabated throughout the 1990s and well into the twenty-first century. The decision by Islamists to reinsert themselves into Palestinian politics resulted in the participation of ḥamās (but not Islamic Jihād) in the elections for the Palestinian legislature in January 2006. Based on an electoral platform of “Reform and Change” ḥamās swept to power, and many believed this would herald the establishment of a Muslim polity in Palestine and narrow the political vista with respect to peace with Israel.

Irrespective of the drive to attain Muslim-majority statehood in Palestine, Islamist groups such as ḥamās and the movement for the resurgence of Islam more generally have established Islam as a permanent and primary feature of Palestinian identity and political discourse in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in Israel and annexed East Jerusalem. Such elements have not always worked harmoniously with institutional Islam, but they represent much about Islam and Palestine in the twenty-first century and Islam's meaning to the majority of Muslim Palestinians who reside there and in the diaspora of Palestinians that fled during the wars of 1948 and 1967.



  • Armstrong, Karen. Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. A historical account that features analysis of the impact of Islam on the development of the city of Jerusalem and its prominence as a holy site.
  • Dumper, Michael. Islam and Israel: Muslim Religious Endowments and the Jewish State. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1994. Examines and critically analyzes the development and deconstruction of the Palestinian waq  f system under Israeli rule.
  • Grabar, Oleg. The Shape of the Holy: Early Islamic Jerusalem. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. An account of the contribution of early Islamic dynasties to the architecture of Palestine and its growing spiritual importance in the Muslim faith system.
  • Kupferschmidt, Uri M.The Supreme Muslim Council: Islam under the British Mandate for Palestine. Leiden and New York: E. J. Brill, 1987. The author examines the extent to which the British authorities attempted to construct and use Muslim institutions in Palestine for their own policy objectives.
  • Lybarger, Loren D.Identity and Religion in Palestine: The Struggle Between Islamism and Secularism in the Occupied Territories. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007. Covers changes in political identity in the West Bank over an eighteen-year span.
  • Milton-Edwards, Beverley. Islamic Politics in Palestine. London and New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 1996. Historical overview of the development of political Islam from the period of the British mandate onwards.
  • Nüsse, Andrea. Muslim Palestine: The Ideology of Ḥamās. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1998. Examines the growth of a new discourse on Islam and politics specific to the ḥamās movement that was founded in 1988.
  • Peled, Alisa Rubin. Debating Islam in the Jewish State: The Development of Policy toward Islamic Institutions in Israel. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Looks at state policy in Israel and the ways in which it has dealt with the Palestinian Muslim presence in its midst.
  • Taji-Farouki, Suha. A Fundamental Quest: Hizb al-Tahrir and the Search for the Islamic Caliphate. London: Grey Seal, 1996. Outlines and examines the emergence of an indigenous Palestinian Muslim discourse and intellectualism that has spread throughout the Muslim world.
  • ʿUwaysī, ʿAbd al-Fattaḥ Muḥammad. The Muslim Brothers and the Palestine Question, 1928–1947. London and New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 1998. Deploys significant primary documentation to examine the development of Muslim discourse on Palestine and its importance.
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